Pompeo: Sanctions only get lifted after complete, verifiable denuclearization

Did North Korea get let off the hook for denuclearization in this week’s summit? Not according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in after the summit on Tuesday. Pompeo emphasized that Donald Trump made it clear to Kim Jong-un that sanctions relief would only take place at the end of the denuclearization process and not before:

“President Trump has been incredibly clear about the sequencing of denuclearization and relief from the sanctions,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters after meeting South Korea’s president and Japan’s foreign minister in Seoul.

“We are going to get complete denuclearization; only then will there be relief from the sanctions,” he said.

North Korean state media reported on Wednesday Kim and Trump had recognized the principle of “step-by-step and simultaneous action” to achieve peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.

Pompeo must have felt compelled to reiterate the US position after an avalanche of speculation yesterday involving the lack of detail in the negotiating plan signed by both Trump and Kim Jong-un on Tuesday. That agreement isn’t the end deal; in fact, it’s not a “deal” at all, as a quick read makes clear. It sets the goal of upcoming negotiations as complete denuclearization and commits both countries to pursuing it, but even those commitments are highly conditional. So too are the parallel concessions of ending missile and nuclear tests by Pyongyang and suspending joint military exercises by the US. We’ve barely gotten started yet.

In that sense, Pompeo’s laying out a starting position for negotiations, and so is the Kim regime. The final outcome is more likely going to involve some phasing of sanctions as verifiable dismantling of the nuclear program goes forward. Pompeo himself gave the Kim regime a sneak peek as to how that might work a month ago, offering to have North Korea send five of its existing nuclear warheads to France for decommissioning as a measure of confidence in the process. Presumably that step would have prompted a measure of confidence in return. The bulk of the sanctions could be kept in place until final verification of denuclearization, but the US has a long hand in sanctions, which gives them plenty of bargaining power.

Pompeo also emphasized that the US has the full backing of South Korea and Japan in its dealing with Kim, and that “there has been unanimity” on the need to keep sanctions in place until the full process of denuclearization is completed:

Stay tuned. The goal here is complete and verifiable denuclearization, not sanctions sequencing, so expect there to be some flexibility in the latter as long as it leads to the former. With North Korea’s long history of reneging on agreements, don’t expect there to be much flexibility on it.